Iraqi museum struggles to recover lost artefacts and glory

It was one of the most impressive collections of historical artefacts in the world.

But in the seven years since Saddam Hussein was ousted, Baghdad's National Museum has struggled to recover not just its pillaged treasures, but also its lost lustre.

Officially reopened with great fanfare in February 2009, a cloud now hangs over the imposing brick structure in the centre of the Iraqi capital, once again closed to the public, this time for renovation.

"We plan to rehabilitate the galleries, strengthen security measures and install new lighting and air conditioning systems," says museum director Amira Edan, sitting in her cavernous but clearly aging office.

Pausing periodically to turn off a noisy, archaic air conditioner so that she could be heard, Edan conceded she did not know when its 24 galleries would re-open to the public after the latest closure.

The most impressive remaining items at the museum are unquestionably two stone winged bulls, which each weigh 38 tonnes, and the murals depicting the reign of Sargon II, extending from 722 to 705 BC, from the Assyrian capital of Dur-Sarrukin.

But while the museum once housed one of the world's most complete Mesopotamian collections, around 15,000 statues and priceless pieces were looted when it was ransacked in April 2003 after Saddam's ouster.

Vandals smashed numerous antiquities and beheaded statues, while professional thieves selected valuable items for smuggling.

Tens of thousands of items were also stolen from archaeological sites in the decades preceding the invasion.

As a result, instead of recounting the civilisations of Sumer, Babylon or the Abbasids with artefacts dating back 9,000 years, many of the museum's galleries remain in semi-darkness.

A large statue of Abdul Karim Qassim, Iraq's first president after its monarchy was overthrown in 1958, sits in a largely empty hall alongside construction materials.

And even after the museum nominally "re-opened" last year, it's doors were not open to the general public, as only schoolchildren and other pre-arranged groups were allowed to visit.

But items are slowly being recovered - the government periodically says it has received hundreds of lost antiquities, with two such announcements having been made this month.

Most of the items returned thus far have come from neighbouring Jordan, but several have also been recovered from Syria and the United States, and others from as far afield as Peru and Sweden.

The most recent recovery announcement was on September 20, when antiquities officials said more than 600 artefacts had been mistakenly stored in a warehouse for nearly two years after being seized by US customs.

And on September 7, Iraq's foreign ministry said it had received another 500 pieces repatriated from the United States, including several hundred tablets miraculously saved from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We have recovered more than 5,000 items taken from the museum's collections," Edan says, adding that the bounty would be much higher, but she laments, "I need more teams, I need more funds."

Among the museum's hundred-odd employees are just three "investigators", consigned to a room on the complex's first floor, poring over Internet web sites and scanning details of private collections and auctions worldwide.

"When we find an Iraqi antique, we alert Interpol's Iraqi branch, which passes the information on to the country where the item is being housed," explains the team's chief Abbas Khodheir.

Court proceedings that result from their investigations are often lengthy and require myriad details.

As an example, Edan cites a case where in 2004, 21 tablets and a necklace were confiscated by Spanish authorities.

"Finally in 2009," she notes, "the Spanish judge decided that the items should remain in Madrid."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones